Mark Kozelek is a curious artist, one whose name is synonymous with slowcore and sad-bastard music. Yet he’s made appearances in a handful of films, most notably as a member of Stillwater in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.” Add to that an appearance on “Yo Gabba Gabba,” appropriately enough playing lullabies, and a series of covers-only albums, one each dedicated to the works of Modest Mouse and AC/DC. Clearly, Kozelek’s not averse to having some fun with his music or his image, and yet when dedicating his time to his originals, he’s most likely to adhere to the somber and the reflective, the delicate and the intricate. And hell, he does an amazing job of it, so why mess with a good thing?
Kozelek’s 2008 album with Sun Kil Moon, April, actually damn near perfects the stunning folk-rock sound that’s continually evolved since his days in Red House Painters. Even more epic than the band’s 2003 effort, Ghosts of the Great Highway, April finds Kozelek & Co. further honing their Crazy Horse-inspired sound to terrain simultaneously more rugged and gorgeous. In fact, just the first song, the awe-inspiring “Lost Verses,” seems to summarize everything great about Sun Kil Moon, from the slow-burning verses to the raucous and distorted two minute coda. It’s absolutely breathtaking, not just musically but lyrically as well, as Kozelek parallels the literal idea of lost song lyrics to the fear that he, too, will become forgotten: “Lost verses well up my eyes and ears.”
This sprawling work continues with the almost equally epic “The Light,” with its harsher riffs, and the stunning “Lucky Man,” a more delicate, finger-picked ballad. Only by the fourth song, “Unlit Hallway,” does Kozelek finally dip below the five-minute mark, though still offering a song as detailed and gorgeously constructed as those that precede it. “Heron Blue,” curiously, was featured in a commercial for video game “Gears of War,” and whoever chose it deserves credit for thinking outside of the box. One of the most chilling and, surprisingly, catchy songs on the album, “Heron Blue” opens with a four-note riff that ultimately unfolds into a beautifully harmonized accompaniment. I was completely floored upon hearing it and its beauty only grows more astonishing with each subsequent listen.
Two of the album’s most outstanding songs are the pair of “Tonight” tracks, each of which stretches past nine mesmerizing, glorious minutes. The first, “Tonight the Sky,” is the longest on the album at 10 and a half minutes, but also one of the most propulsive and rocking, as Kozelek delivers some ragged, unforgettable riffs before reaching the chorus of “tonight the sky will open for you.” Meanwhile, “Tonight in Bilbao” speeds up the tempo slightly, while easing back on the distortion, instead building upon a shimmering riff that remains constant while the bassline changes subtly, resulting in a listening experience guaranteed to cause goosebumps.
While the debate over which Kozelek release remains his best, a strong case could be made for a good half dozen of them. Yet April itself is a strong contender, one of his longest but most perfectly crafted sets of songs, each one a perfect island unto itself, but part of an even more outstanding whole. I’ll readily admit that my conversion to the Kozelek discography was pretty recent, April alone won me over.
Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night
Red House Painters – Songs for a Blue Guitar
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See A Darkness